Almost everyone experiences at least one headache at some time during his or her life. According to the World Health Organization, about 50% of all adults have regular headaches. They can slow you down or even stop you in your tracks. The pain can be intense or a dull ache and last a few hours or up to a couple of days. Regardless of your exact symptoms, you want relief.
Primary headaches are caused by overactivity of or problems with pain-sensitive structures in your head. A primary headache isn’t a symptom of an underlying disease. The three types are:
- Cluster — One of the most painful types of headache. It commonly wakes you in the middle of the night with intense pain in and around one eye on one side of your head. Fortunately, cluster headaches are rare and not life-threatening.
- Migraine — Causes severe throbbing pain or a pulsing sensation, usually on just one side of the head. It's often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to light and sound. Migraine attacks can cause significant pain for hours to days and can be so severe that the pain is disabling. Some people experience sensory disturbances called aura before or along with migraines. These disturbances can include flashes of light, blind spots and other vision changes or tingling in your hand or face. Treatments for migraine with aura and migraine without aura usually are the same. Medications can help prevent some migraines and make them less painful. Botox injections have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a treatment for chronic migraines.
- Tension — Generally a diffuse, mild-to-moderate pain in your head that's often described as feeling like a tight band around your head. A tension headache (tension-type headache) is the most common type of headache.
A secondary headache is a symptom of a disease that can activate the pain-sensitive nerves of your head. Many conditions can cause secondary headaches, and these conditions range widely in severity.
Secondary headache types include:
- External compression — A result of pressure-causing headgear
- Ice cream — Commonly called brain freeze
- Rebound — Caused by overuse of pain medications
- Sinus — Caused by inflammation and congestion in sinus cavities
- Spinal — Caused by low pressure or volume of cerebrospinal fluid, possibly the result of spontaneous cerebrospinal fluid leak, spinal tap or spinal anesthesia
- Thunderclap — A group of disorders that involves sudden, severe headaches with multiple causes
When to see a doctor
The headache experts in Neurology offer treatment options that can make a difference.
Talk with your primary care provider or see a neurologist if you experience headaches that:
- Occur more often than usual
- Are more severe than usual
- Worsen or don't improve with appropriate use of over-the-counter drugs
- Keep you from working, sleeping or participating in normal activities
- Cause you distress, and you would like to find treatment options that enable you to control them better